When one enters Drama for Life’s Emakhaya Theatre, located at Wits University Corner Building, one is greeted by beautiful colours of the Ndebele people. But Phuma-Langa, a new work created by choreographer and dancer, Mamela Nyamza is anything but colourful. The production kicks you in the gut and does not give you a moment to breathe. It offers no escape. One is uncomfortable till the end, which is exactly what South Africa needs right now, to come face to face with the uncomfortable truths of our past.
At a first glance, the colourful costumes mimic the Ndebele attire. However, upon a closer look, one realises that they are actually swimming accessories namely swimming pool pipes, inflatable armbands, swim caps and swim rings. The piece starts off with dancers who appear to be blind, we watch them as they attempt to navigate the space using white sticks. They mark their journey using chalk attached to the white sticks. A few minutes later, the dancers deliberately erase the paths that they scribbled as they bottom shuffle across the stage. The metaphor of erasure is very important to what Phuma-Langa represents, a loss of culture. The white sticks also transform into military rifles. The work is a commentary on how apartheid trampled on African cultures. Nyamza addresses the loss of innocent lives, identity, culture, language and ideas of belonging during and post-apartheid.
As the performance progresses, the dancers’ costumes start falling apart before our eyes. However, there is no attempt from any of the dancers to pick up the mess which is normally the case in most productions. The mess on stage makes one uncomfortable, it left me wondering if it was a deliberate act or if the costumes were not inspected prior to the performance. My answer soon became clear as the mess started to punctuate our bloody past. Unlike us (South Africans) who were too quick to pick up the messy bits of apartheid, Phuma-Langa allows for the mess to linger. It forces you to confront the wound and address it. Things are not as put together as the notion of “rainbow nation” would like us to believe. In this piece, the sunrise exposes the terrible ills of the night.
At one point, dancers pile up into what looks like a rubble of dead bodies at a battlefield. This frozen image reminds one of how wounded we are as a nation. As it stands with our political climate, we remain uncertain of what the future holds or if there is any future for that matter. 23 years into democracy with 11 official languages, non-natives still pronounce places like Mpumalanga as “Maphumalanga”, Mbeki as “Mabheki” or Nhlanhla as “Nshansha” and butcher countless other names. There is a refusal to learn African names, as they continue to opt for nicknames instead. I am reminded of Warsan Shire’s powerful words, “give your children difficult names, so the world may learn how to unfurl its tongue in the direction of our stolen languages.”
Nyamza’s work is not pretty. It disrupts any form of false comfort that lies in the body, for both the actor and the spectator. It forces us to be honest with ourselves. While Nyamza claims that Phuma-Langa is “a recall for a renewed reconciliation amongst all South Africans”, the work refuses to revive harmony at the expense of one’s culture. Rather, it is a cry for tolerance and respect for each other’s cultures.
The costumes are not the only haunting images, Nyamza carefully selected music that aid the story. Bok van Blerk’s controversial De La Ray heightens the already tense work in ways that brought me to tears. When van Blerk came under fire with this song, he claimed that it was about encouraging Afrikaners to be proud of their heritage. However, the use of the song in Phuma-Langa is triggering, it cripples the soul. It highlights how during apartheid, the Afrikaners imposed themselves on to the Ndebele people and their culture. While the lyrics claim a “struggle” of the minority, Phuma-Langa subverts this and highlights how the Ndebele people’s ways of living suffered greatly under the apartheid rule. It portrays a reality of a dying culture and countless attempts to revive it. Unlike a call for the Afrikaner nation to rise as is the case in De La Ray, Nyamza calls for the Ndebele culture and in extension, the rest of South Africans to rise and never allow themselves to be oppressed again. The work urges all of us to stand against all forms of oppression, to re-build and restore hope for all.
Phuma- Langa is a layered re-writing of history. This hard-hitting narrative is brought to life by the talented dancers from The Forgotten Angle Theatre Collaborative under the acclaimed choreographer and director, Mamela Nyamza.
Costume Design & Production: Sasha Ehlers
Lighting Design: Thabo Pule
Performed by: Nicholas Aphane, Shawn Mothupi, Lorin Sookool, Thulani Lathish Mgidi, Nomfundo Hlongwa and Franscesca Matthys
Phuma-Langa runs from 14 – 16 September 2017 at the Emakhaya Theatre, Drama for Life Creative Research Hub, 19th Floor, University Corner Building, Corner Jorissen and Bertha, Braamforntein